Sloan’s Blended Learning Conference was held April 23-4, 2012 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This is primarily a postsecondary conference, although there were a few sessions on K12 blended learning implementation. K12 often follows where higher education leads, so if you are primarily interested in K12 education, this might be a glimpse into your future as well.
Blended learning methodology graphic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Blended learning is expanding, in types as well as numbers. The face to face component might occur incidentally once or twice, or might meet as often as twice a week. The drivers for expansion are both monetary and pedagogical, although, as you’ll see below, there are certainly obstacles and wrong turns in its implementation. We think it’s important to note that this conference dealt with Higher Ed as it functions today, and did not provide a glimpse of future changes we might see there. Perhaps that will be more apparent at the Innovations Conference Sloan runs in the summer.
Cost drivers for blended learning
To the extent that money drives educational decisions, blended learning may be the most viable solution to two problems.
There seems to be a growing national shortage of classroom space, and no money to build more. Institutions are thus pressuring instructors to reduce seat time requirements for their course. In fact, the original definition of blended learning stated that 30 to 70% of class time be replaced by online activities.
There are only two ways to substantially adapt to the huge cuts in state spending for higher education: raise tuition (the prime reason tuition rates have increased dramatically over the last 10 years), or increase efficiencies (larger classes, more classes per instructor, use of more adjunct faculty). Blended learning is looked on as a way to allow an instructor to teach larger classes and also potentially reach a larger audience, since there is a lower requirement to be in the same classroom. Changes in financial aid have also made it possible to spend less “seat” time to accomplish learning.
Improved pedagogy for blended learning
While these economic factors are probably driving the institutions to expand blended learning, there is a potential for more effective teaching as well. In fact, many students seem to prefer blended to online or face to face classes, and some studies indicate greater effectiveness of blended over either of the other two methods. After all, how engaged is a student in the back row of a 400 person class listening to a lecture?
Some of the enhancements that are now available include:
- Heterogeneous groups: Greater diversity often results in greater learning. One example is small groups consisting of students from different campuses who are taking the same course and who then work together in project or problem based learning. Students can form, or be placed in, asynchronous study groups as well, jointly taking notes on readings and lectures or commenting on each other’s’ summaries. (A session on long-term group project management proved most informative and is described later.)
- Peer review: giving students the ability to see and then review (using some rubric) the works of other students increases their awareness of good work while also potentially reducing the workload of the instructor. Peer evaluation, which is related, also emulates the real-world work environment and has proven valuable.
- Gamification: converting reading, research, or assessment assignments into game-like activities can increase student engagement. For example, a research project can be made into a treasure hunt, or quizzes can be converted into games. This design change really enhances elements of interactivity beyond what’s accomplished in traditional instruction.
- Flexibility and time shifting: In addition to making class lectures available online, tests can be scheduled not at a particular moment, but at the point the individual students feels competent.
- Assessment: Some schools are experimenting with letting students retake tests until they are satisfied with the results, converting assessments of learning into assessment as learning. Testing can also emulate real world work scenarios by allowing resources to be used in test taking environments, testing not only what the student knows, but how well they can solve problems using the right tools.
The general practice for creating blended courses is for the individual instructors to determine how to incorporate online resources and tools into their classes: which resources to use and how much seat time to reduce. Schools support the instructors through training, use of graduate students for design and development, and school guidelines for look and feel. Experienced companies such as Erudient (Erudient is a client of ours) are available to assist with design, development, support, and resource selection.
Hurdles and some solutions for blended learning
The end goal of education is still to increase student knowledge, skill, and expertise. Some clumsy attempts at blended learning are to put PowerPoint slides online along with some narration, reduce face to face by one class a week, and call the course “blended”. This conference was to dispense with those types of efforts, and many sessions at the conference dealt with some of the problems in implementation blended classes and the ways that the speaker used in overcoming them.
One problem is students who sign up for hybrid or online classes, and then are not prepared for the differences between instructor directed classes and the self-motivation and organization required online. One suggestion was to have successful students make videos of how they successfully completed the course to be shown at the beginning of courses. Other instructors pointed out the importance of early warning systems to monitor when students start falling behind and then immediate engagement with those students.
For group work, many pointed out that you can’t just assign remote students into a group and then expect them to productively accomplish something. Students need time to form, which can be provided by icebreaking or get-acquainted activities. One school requires groups to record their online interactions so that, if there are disagreements among group members about certain participants not contributing, the school can monitor what actually happened.
Similarly, some faculty are used to traditional settings and haven’t managed the nuanced differences such as building the community of learners, structuring activities and projects in a way to help students manage the time to complete long term projects. One particular session covered techniques to help students by building team activities including peer evaluations and assigning a grade to completing a task. Milestones ensured that students move through the activity without creating bottlenecks or problems for one another. Peer evaluation on the various iterations of the project ensure that by the time the end is reached, the final output is already in good shape. While this technique is used in writing all the time, a group activity in a blended scenario requires real project management planning and skills.
One interesting use of blended learning in K12 is the WCATY (Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth) Academy, which is a middle school. This group serves about a third of the districts in the state, with about 1300 students a year. Their goal is to make students responsible for their own learning and understand their own learning processed by digging deeply into one topic. For example, a course on the French Revolution is called “Off with their Heads” and starts with a virtual tour of the Versailles palace. A course on meeting up with aliens actually teaches communications techniques. WCATY teachers focus on learning, and assessing learning, through storytelling, with a combination of virtual and face to face activities for students.
Another session was presented on blended learning in a studio course, and the research showed clearly that while the activity was accomplished by individual students, group evaluations and expert feedback were critical to the final result and greatly enhanced the learning of both the students evaluated and the students evaluating. To learn more and to see the research, including some of the best use of graphics in a research paper, contact Mahmoud Reza Saghafi at email@example.com, (Queensland University of Technology.)
One of the financial goals for institutions to implement blended learning is to increase class size, which can cause a cascade of issues. Aisha Jackson, Amanda McAndrew, Jackie Moriyama, and Viktoriya Oliynyk of the University of Colorado at Boulder maintain a website of mostly free tools to help with these large classes, and which can also help with face to face large classes: http://bit.ly/largecourseinfo
Blended Learning can be a magic button; reducing the costs of education while also enhancing learning. There are many resistors and still some hurdles to overcome to successful implementation, but, as one participant pointed out, if the lecture format for classes were introduced as a new technology today, it would like be universally panned.
This conference would not have been possible without the energy and organization of Tanya Joosten and the folks at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. We would like to put a plug in for Dr. Joosten’s book Social Media for Educators as a big thank you for your successful efforts.